Jackson’s Use of Horror to Liberate Women Trapped Within Patriarchal Identity By Amy Lee

Jackson’s Use of Horror to Liberate Women Trapped Within Patriarchal Identity By Amy Lee

I am currently finishing up my last semester in Health Sciences and looking forward to studying applications of genetics. Exploring Shirley Jackson’s works (and horror in general) for the first time was not easy but captivated me by how readers are handed an honest and deep reflection of our internal struggles. My essay was built on the foundation of the observations of many of my peers and of an innovative and passionate instructor.


Jackson’s Use of Horror to Liberate Women Trapped Within Patriarchal Identity

By Amy Lee


Shirley Jackson writes about the horror in everyday life and in everyone’s lives, often inviting readers to consider and question the impact of social influence on minorities. “The Possibility of Evil,” “The Renegade,” and “Flower Garden” all feature women in similar rural settings who experience internal or external alienation from their surrounding society. Although there are differences between the texts, they all suggest that the real horror behind these works is not the disturbing psychological effects suffered by her characters, but the revelation of their identity independent of the androcentric society that moulds them. In other words, what is terrifying is not having experienced paranoia or anxiety, but having to deal with an accurate reflection of how deeply-rooted patriarchy has manipulated one’s identity. This is significant for Jackson’s female characters, who represent members of society that identified and were remembered as shadows of their husbands and family members of the mid-1900s. Characters like Mrs. Winning and Mrs. Walpole are described to be dependent on their husbands, and Miss Strangeworth is no exception, almost acting like a reincarnation of her grandfather, whom she describes as the founder of the town. Jackson’s experimentations consist of making her characters conscious of the manipulation of their husbands and families, placing an emphasis on how their desires for sexual intimacy and their roles as an individual are repressed.  Her characters react to this revelation by either choosing to join many other women in forever ignoring their desires, or choosing to abandon their stable status to accept and respect their identity. Important concepts to consider within this boundary include the symbolism present in the settings, alienation, and the formation, collapse, or reinforcement of identity.

Whether the characters are married or not, each story reveals how women are often encouraged to prioritize their husband or ancestor above their own needs. Mrs. Walpole is presented as a busy housewife who works hard to consecrate her days to preparing food and cleaning for her husband and children. Although Mr. Walpole never demands any of this from her, he is clearly indifferent to her “feelings” and whether she “had a chance to eat” in the morning (Jackson, “Renegade,” 45). Similarly, Mrs. Winning is under the authority of her mother-in-law, who has already become used to her role as a housewife. Mrs. Winning best fits the description of a shadow of her husband, as her role is to become more like the elder Mrs. Winning and “[belong] to the Winning family” (Jackson, “Flower,” 66). Mrs. Winning “thought, today more poignantly than ever before, that she had at least given them another Howard, with the Winning eyes and mouth, in exchange for her food and her bed” (69). On the other hand, Miss Strangeworth appears to be unrestrained as an unmarried woman, but she too is confined to glorify her grandfather, supposedly the founder of the town. She is constantly reminded of her grandfather’s authority through the beautiful roses that invade his house. “Miss Strangeworth never gave away any of her roses, ( . . . ) she set them in bowls and vases around the inside of the house her grandfather had built,” as if giving them away would dissipate the glory of her grandfather (Jackson, “Evil,” 7). Although she speaks often, boasting about “[her] grandfather and the lumber mill” and “[saying] good morning to someone or [asking] about someone’s health,” nothing describes Miss Strangeworth as an individual (7).

For Jackson’s protagonists, the identity established by patriarchal authority falls apart once they start to notice their own desires related to sexual intimacy and to their role as a housewife. In “The Renegade,” Mrs. Walpole expresses her trouble adapting in the countryside through her reflection in the family’s dog, Lady, that killed the neighbor’s chickens. As soon as “[taking] care of the dog” is requested, her “throat [tightens],” thinking that she must also be removed from the rural community (Jackson, “Renegade,” 47). It is not made clear what “sharp points [close] in on her throat” (52), but her new life in the countryside seems to disadvantage only herself, as a housewife who must accommodate the needs of her husband and her children where “it is extremely difficult to ‘get a man’ to do things for [the family]” (47). Her lonely struggle resembles that of Allis Dews in the experimental documentary Must Read After My Death, who, unhappy with her role as a housewife, says “I am not a housewife. I have never been a housewife” (Must, 0:18-0:21). In contrast, Mrs. Winning and Miss Strangeworth start questioning their identity especially when fighting their desires for sexual intimacy. Emily Banks describes the setting of flowers and their colours in “Flower Garden” to reveal Mrs. Winning’s erotic desire and envy towards her neighbour Mrs. MacLane, who had moved into the cottage of her dreams. Through “Erotic Envy and the Racial Other in ‘Flower Garden,’” Banks explains that “Jackson uses the image of flowers to convey female sexuality,” which encircle and fill the MacLane house, whereas the Winnings’ house is surrounded by tall maple trees that “foreclose the possibility of any new pleasures or frivolous aesthetic” (“Flower,” 6). These maple trees offer a sturdy protection, which is the title of belonging to the wealthy Winning’s family, but deprive her of sexual satisfaction from her stern husband. It is through her friendship with Mrs. MacLane that Jackson allows Mrs. Winning to discover her erotic desires while admiring Mrs. MacLane’s house, since “it had been a very long time since young Mrs. Winning had said the first thing that came into her head” (66-67). Banks implies that Mrs. Winning (as well as Mrs. MacLane) views Mr. Jones, a Black man that works for Mrs. MacLane as a gardener, through an “erotic lens,” incorporating his dark skin colour to the “garden colors” of eroticism (8). Similarly, Miss Strangeworth reveals a possible sexual desire while grocery shopping as she thinks about Mr. Lewis, a grocer with whom she was very close: “They had been in high school together, and had gone to picnics together, and to high school dances and basketball games” (Jackson, “Evil,” 8). Miss Strangeworth chases away these memories, constantly having to remind herself that “Tommy” is a grocer, and she lives in the “Strangeworth house on Pleasant Street,” as if her desire for him would dishonor her grandfather (8). Unlike in “Flower Garden,” the roses at the Strangeworth house are identical to the maple trees at the Winnings’, its thorns lifting Miss Strangeworth above others as well as pushing away her personal desire for love.

Once Jackson reveals these desires to her protagonists, they start feeling paranoid and sense that they are alienated from their surroundings, therefore obligated to choose between their individual identity and the stability of being under a masculine authority. Mrs. Walpole faces alienation indirectly from the rural community and even from her own family as she goes around asking what should happen to Lady, who fails to meet the countryside conditions for a dog. She is more interested in finding a solution for herself in a similar situation, not willing to live only as a housewife, and expresses relief when “[the villagers don’t] blame [her]” for the crime committed by Lady (Jackson, “Renegade,” 49). However, Jackson’s story ends with a rising tension of Mrs. Walpole expecting her own “collar” lined with “spikes” instead of leaning towards Mrs. Walpole abandoning her role as a housewife (and probably leaving the rural community) or sacrificing Lady to re-establish her identity under her husband, unlike for Mrs. Winning and Miss Strangeworth (52). Mrs. Winning quickly reinforces her identity as a Winning as she senses implicit alienation from her friendship with Mrs. MacLane, which represented an opportunity to discover her erotic desires. As a result of employing a Black male to work in her garden, the habitants of Vermont alienate Mrs. MacLane and her son, hinting towards the same for Mrs. Winning because of their friendship. As soon as Mrs. Burton assumes that “[Mrs. Winning] would mind” that she was excluding Mrs. MacLane’s son from her son’s birthday party, Mrs. Winning is offended since she “[lives] with the Winnings” and pushes her friend away, choosing to stick with her identity as a Winning rather than defend Mrs. MacLane and their erotic pleasure (Jackson, “Flower,” 77). Her decision eventually chases Mrs. MacLane out of the town, completely shutting down her sexual desires. Before leaving Vermont, Mrs. MacLane and her son “[call] out, ‘Hello!’” to Mrs. Winning, only to be ignored as she walks “with great dignity ( . . . ) toward the old Winning house” (80). In contrast, Miss Strangeworth pushes away from the townspeople before they can even think about it and goes even further to express her distancing by sending brutal letters to them during the night. This suggests that Miss Strangeworth puts herself at the risk of external alienation from the rural community because she cannot choose between the authority that her grandfather accorded to her and her desires. Why so extreme? Because if she was determined to abandon her identity as a Strangeworth, then it would mean her leaving the town (physically or psychologically), since, as she admits, “There wouldn’t have been a town [there] at all if it hadn’t been for [her] grandfather” (Jackson, “Evil,” 7). Therefore, as the story ends with the someone (representing all the townspeople for Miss Strangeworth) sending her letter back and destroying the roses of the Strangeworth house, “her hands [do] not shake as she [opens] the envelope,” implying that she was not as surprised that she was caught and she “[cries] silently for the wickedness of the world,” bidding her last farewells as “a Strangeworth of Pleasant Street” (13-14). The destruction of the roses signify that Miss Strangeworth is cut loose from her grandfather’s authority and now has an answer, which is to destroy her long-established identity to create her own.

Many of Jackson’s female characters, notably Mrs. Walpole, Mrs. Winning, and Miss Strangeworth, go through a lot more than male characters to discover that their identity does not accurately reflect their true desires, and face social isolation at the cost of accepting who they truly are. Jackson successfully targets patriarchal authority through her writing (in terms of the storyline as well as the use of literary devices such as irony), at the same time proving common misconceptions that the horror genre is shallow and has no take-away message. As readers dig into the works of Shirley Jackson, with its context and her use of irony in mind, each work comes to life and sparks real-life revelations to its reader, as they question norms and the patriarchy that still apply to this very day.


Works Cited

Banks, Emily. “Erotic Envy and the Racialized Other in ‘Flower Garden’.” Shirley Jackson: A Companion, edited by Kristopher Woofter, Peter Lang, 2021. (forthcoming)

Jackson, Shirley. “Flower Garden.” The Lottery and Other Stories. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004, pp. 203-234.

—. “The Possibility of Evil.” Dark Tales. Penguin, 2015.

—. “The Renegade.” The Lottery and Other Stories. [1949] Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.

Must Read After My Death. Directed by Morgan Dews, Gigantic Releasing, 2009. Vimeo, uploaded by morgandews, 2015, https://vimeo.com/142443639. Accessed Dec. 7th 2020.

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